Get into bed

| May 9, 2011

Let’s do something the ACCC is going to hate, but can’t do much about. Get together with competitors.

There’s two sorts in business. The bulk want to make friends, have a few laughs, go to work in a good mood, enjoy the day, make a buck. The others, the nasty minority, think it’s about conflict and competition and killing the other guy.

Sadly, most people who write business books are the nasties. The books scream competition – Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’, the mother of attitude-riddled books, written by a grumpy old bloke with a thumping guilt about the people he’d stabbed in the back.

Business is not about competition. It might have been in 16th century Japan, but not in 21st century Australia. We can’t survive without co-operation. Your business is a system for fulfilling various people’s needs, met by the machinery. You need staff. Suppliers. Telcos, banks. You need customers. You need distributors, you need accountancy, advertising partners. You can’t get any of them to play by force. They have to want to be there.

It may seem weird, but you don’t have to view your competitors as enemies. Look at your business like a farmer selling milk or rice – think more like a cooperative. Get together and plot out markets. How about you take the West, and we take the East? You could use your combined strength in negotiations with suppliers like media or customers, like big retail. What if all tomato growers, by mistake, just happened not to supply Coles for a week or two? Think how much cheaper your HR or ad costs would be if your industry changed the way it traded? If food companies said to magazines, ‘we won’t pay more than x per thousand readers’, suddenly you’d get a lot more space a lot cheaper in foody mags. Or you could share warehousing, or sales staff, not that some of you don’t already. Careful not to price set, cause the ACCC might be able to hit you there, but the rest is pretty iffy under the TPA.

Ask your competitors to lunch. There’s a lot to be gained and very little to lose. Worst case scenario is they think you want to buy them, and that in itself will give you heaps of entertainment. You could start with the question: How much?

Geoffrey McDonald Bowll is the managing director of Melbourne creative agency Starship and a member of First 5000.